What you should learn from Comet NEOWISE

 

Comet NEOWISE as photographed by the author recently. (credit: Hariharan Karthikeyan)



This was nothing short of a hasty search for the highest point in the city. As the sky dimmed, we drove in separate cars for miles and miles unsuccessfully, finally settling for a rugged trail that branched off of Beatty Drive in El Dorado Hills, California.

I mounted the tripod and fastened the camera, gearing it toward the northwestern sky. And after several minutes of scouring that area beneath the Big Dipper (while maintaining our distance), we spotted something with our eyes. A wisp of light encased in darkness.

And at that moment, 73 minutes after sunset, I gently pressed the shutter, praying dearly that this wasn’t just another airplane.

Avid stargazers haven’t enjoyed a spectacle like this since Hale-Bopp a quarter-century ago. Since its discovery back in March, Comet NEOWISE has garnered considerable attention among astronomers. And now we know a lot more about it.

Comets are notoriously unpredictable. Nevertheless, we can expect to see NEOWISE again once it returns on its near-parabolic orbit—about 6,800 years from now. And now, the comet is eluding our reach as it returns to the outer solar system. For those hoping to catch a glimpse, the clock is ticking.

It felt like a miracle—what we could hardly see with the naked eye was captured as if it were brighter than any other star. (credit: Hariharan Karthikeyan)

Nestled between the Big Dipper and horizon, it’s a breathtaking sight. And given current global conditions, that sight can be an escape from everything weighing us down.

Let’s face it. Almost no one has been able to reconcile with isolation during this pandemic. What began as sheer boredom has turned into poor mental health for many. Plus, we’ve seen a lot: wildfires in Australia, police brutality, ongoing racial tensions, and, for many students, the continuation of distance learning in August. And to the average person, it’s easy to assume that an object more than 100 million kilometers away wouldn’t wash away our problems here on Earth.

We should think the opposite.

What many of us need in these challenging times is a sense of connectedness. When we think big, and zoom out, we gain a sense of context. We cease to define ourselves by the problems of today, but take everything in, holistically. Our accomplishments. Our ambitions. Our role in the cosmos—that gentle reminder that we’re all made from stardust. Ultimately, we stretch our perception of our own existence beyond the material self and achieve that sense of attachment—to both ourselves and those objects big and far.

So as I stood there on the trail that night, I took pride in having witnessed an event that humanity would not see for another seven millennia. And that thing tens of millions of kilometers away offered connectedness, and then, context, during desperate times.

In the absence of face-to-face interaction, we should all strive to realize our part of something bigger. Then, we can detach ourselves from today’s struggles, realizing that they are temporary. And during these challenging times, you’ll see it for yourself: looking up is a whole lot better than looking down.

This was always true. It’s just more important now than ever.

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